Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Diamond Rugs

This week's profilee is a case study in the difference between vocalists and singers. That this difference can be best understood through a ragtag bar band supergroup is even more surprising.

Diamond Rugs
New Release: Cosmetics (stream it here)

Release Date: February 24, 2015
Record Label: Partisan Records
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Sounds Like: Deer Tick (NMT); Mean Creek (NMT)

There isn't a direct connection of the beauty of someone's singing voice and their ability to command an audience. Axl Rose hardly could be considered as having an enviable voice, but – before his ego overcame his ability – few could match his magnitude as a frontman. Janice Joplin sang like she was gargling thumbtacks while driving on a dirt road. She was revered as a blues-rock vocalist. Billy Corgan led The Smashing Pumpkins on stadium tours of progressive rock at the height of the grunge era with little more than nasal wheeze to deliver his anthemic lyrics. Lesser known to the masses (but hopefully to regular readers of this space), The Rural Alberta Advantage's (NMT, NMT) Nils Edenloff croons as smoothy as a shot of vinegar, making him the perfect messenger for the band's hardscrabble Canadian prairie cannons.

Such is the case of Deer Tick frontman John McCauley in his second stint with his Diamond Rugs side project. McCauley reunites with a hodgepodge of buddies from other groups for the unit's sophomore effort, the 11-track Cosmetics three years after their self-titled debut. The notable vocal contrast stems from McCauley's interplay with co-lead singer Hardy Morris (who also heads up Dead Confederate as his main gig). Although McCauley's resemblance of Axl Rose is conspicuous, his blend of delivery mechanics and passion distinguishes him as a vocalist while Morris just kind of meanders along as a (not particularly interesting) singer.

In the end, it might not matter at all. The group is a bunch of friends in other bands who get together when they can to write and play songs they enjoy and – not having seen them live yet – might just be the type of band that allows you to have an awesome time at a show, not really caring how great the vocals are or how expertly they play their instruments. That's obvious on a couple standout numbers of punk-tinged, garage rock all recorded on eight tracks or less.

Come for: "Voodoo Doll" – punchy and uncomplicated; note how Morris stumbles through the verses while McCauley sails along in the chorus; keyboardist Robbie Crowell – also of Deer Tick – delivers a delightful little organ track
Stay for: "Live and Shout It" – not sure if that's Morris doing these deadpan, spoken-word style vocals (which aren't great), but the "Willie and the Hand Jive"-meets-early-Springsteen vibe is an exuberant can't-miss sing-along
You'll be surprised by: "Couldn't Help It" – there's that "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" acoustic guitar-driven rhythm (Morris, McCauley and former Black Lips guitarist Ian Saint Pé form a three-ax unit) paired with solid Everly Brothers-style harmonies from McCauley and Morris that make this sound straight from 1964
Solid efforts: "Thunk" – while I'm still not wild about Morris out front (he does harmonize well with McCauley, though), the horn section led by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin and Crowell's keys make this more than salvageable;  "Meant To Be" – a thumpy blues-rock rumbler, with Berlin's horns again covering the spread; "So What" – a runner-up for the Stay for pick, it's just what this band should sound like, even if the the song itself ain't all that great on its own; "Blame" – after the intro, I expect this to be a Grateful Dead number; again, I don't know who all's doing the singing here, but I like the trading vocals in any case; Crowell's organ nod to Ray Manzarek is a nice touch; "Clean" – a gritty number in the Dylan-goes-electric vein; "Motel Room" – the most Deer Tick-sounding offering here, infused with some "Come Together" bluster; "a funeral at a Chuck E. Cheese" made me chuckle
Meh: "Ain't Religion" – a clear Credence rip-off rhythm; this one would have likely end up on the Skip to next track pile had Morris sang it and not McCauley; slow, thoughtful numbers aren't really what this group was made for; "Killing Time" – it doesn't start off too bad (and Crowell's organ is a highlight along with Saint Pé's tres-70s sounding guitar) but this proof-of-concept (meaning the song reiterates its title or theme in inescapable ways in the performance; something that irritates me to no end) just goes on too long. I get it, you're killing time. It's sufficiently killed. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Christian Letts

Christian Letts
New Release: Hold Fast
Release Date: Today (2/17/15)
Record Label: Vagrant Records
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.
Sounds Like: Brian Fallon (NMT, NMT, NMT, NMT, NMT); Dolorean (NMT); The Barr Brothers (NMT)

Any regular reader of this space will know I'm a fan of large, co-ed groups with a multitude of instruments and a range of styles. But for whatever reason, probably their in-your-face hippie vibe or long spells of psychadelic meandering – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes have just never really done it for me. But I'm willing to explore material from the group's individual members, as is the case with guitarist Christian Letts' solo debut, Hold Fast.

Although much of the ten-track release could be summed up as a less homespun version of Johnny Cash and a less gritty Brian Fallon, Letts appropriates some of his main gig's penchant for scope and grandeur in a few standout numbers that makes the effort more than a guy, his songs and a guitar. He achieves what is a rare feat, in my book: a singer-songwriter, folk record that doesn't tire too quickly in repetition.

Come for: "Charles de Gaulle" – what a singer-songwriter folk number should sound like; the accompanying instrumentation is light and brisk, a breezy contrast to Letts' nearly-spoken word lyrics and bass register; an uncomplicated love song
Stay for: "The Oath" – few better ways to start a song then "here it comes, a gut-boy's oath, I'll always make a toast to life;" strong chorus harmonies and horns atop a steady folk rhythm are the makings of a great tune
You'll be surprised by: "Emeralds" (hints of The National in its darkness but with heartland rock sensibility, which is nearly jubilant at its closing climax; at times, Letts' vocal phrasing can channel Jim Morrison)
Solid efforts: "The Keeper" – I'd have no trouble believing this as a number 11 or 12 track on a Gaslight Anthem record; somber & reflective but not a downer; train references are always good;  "Boxing Day" – English by birth, Letts puts a rootsy background behind a holiday tradition Americans have a hard time understanding: a chance to start again; "Copper Bells" – I know its a tired trope, but this is the kind of song you'd expect to hear when walking through the swinging doors at an old west saloon; "La Mer" – nimble lyricism paired with unadorned acoustic guitar highlights Letts ability to excel in simplicity; "Skipping Stones" – Letts seems to be able to reach from an endless bag of fireside sing-along numbers, of which this is one; "Twenty Seven Arrows" – don't really know the background on the theological references but would like to Letts explain his perspective on this one; the electric guitar warmed up with a backing band and horns is a distinguishing factor; "Matches" – "looked at death and traded this life for love" –> better writing than you'll hear on most closing numbers    

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Hey Rosetta –

Wow! Three weeks in a row! What is this, 2011 or something?!

Speaking of 2011, this week we explore the supremely talented but inconsistent Canadian baroque rock/chamber pop outfit Hey Rosetta!, whom we first covered with their third full-length release, Seeds (NMT).

Hey Rosetta!
New Release: Second Sight
Release Date: Today in the United States (January 27, 2015) [released in Canada August 4, 2014]
Record Label: Sonic Records
Location: St. John's, Newfoundland
Sounds Like: Hey Marsailles (NMT); Ra Ra Riot (NMT); Vampire Weekend

Many baroque rock/chamber pop enthusiasts – including your blogger – were disappointed by Ra Ra Riot's recent shift away from the genre they helped define to a more synth/techno focus with 2013's Beta Love. Although Hey Rosetta! has actually been exploring more intricately-arranged compositions for longer than their Syracuse, N.Y., counterparts, Ra Ra Riot had generated a tad more critical and commercial interest – although perhaps only due to the former's relatively limited profile coming from Canada's easternmost reaches. Regardless, while we wait for Seattle's Hey Marseilles to follow-up their well-received sophomore effort, 2013's Lines We Trace, the Newfie crew has the stage to their selves. And they generally take advantage of the opportunity on Second Sight's dozen tracks of always nuanced and occasionally robust mix of folk, indie rock and baroque influences.

Come for: "Soft Offering (For the Oft-Suffering)" – clever title and the funkiest track on the record, drawing from that Paul Simon-Meets-The Police style that Vampire Weekend has employed to perfection
Stay for: "Kintsukuroi" – in my book, ranks only behind Seeds' title track as their finest work; brisk and agile, the chorus is infectious
You'll be surprised by: "Harriett" – who knew this group had a touch of old-school R&B in its bag of tricks?
Solid efforts: "Gold Teeth" – most reminiscent of the band's 2008 effort, Into Your Lungs..., but perhaps with a touch more rhythmic pep from bassist Josh Ward and drummer Phil Maloney; wish there was just a bit more instrumental flourish besides guitarist Adam Hogan's light but nimble figures; a groovy, sing-along closing refrain should get you bopping about; "Dream" – what a midtempo number should sound like; can easily close your eyes and hear the chorus in line with fun.'s Some Nights (NMT); "Promise" – the intro is a little too dreamy for my taste, but the thing stiffens up after 1:45 and features one of the frontman Tim Baker's more muscular choruses; "Kid Gloves" – Ward's fuzz bass here is unique for this band, centering the number as it sways from thumping verses to a more jangly chorus; "archers of pain" is a good line); "Neon Beyond" – a contender for the Surprised By section; after it hits its stride around the first chorus, it's one of the heaviest-hitting cuts in the band's catalog;     
Meh: "What Arrows" – on the other hand, the bulk of this song is not what this group does well: it's slow and sleepy until the 4:19 mark - without any fun instrumentation - at which point it becomes something slightly more interesting as the beat picks up some; it's what you'd expect a boring Maroon 5 song would sound like; "Cathedral Bells" – I'm not much for Baker on his own, which he essentially is here; just not a lot of vigor, although he flirts with the melody of Spoon's hit, "The Underdog")
Skip to next track: "Alcatraz" – I get its intended to evoke isolation and loneliness; I'd rather be in Alcatraz, without this song; "Trish's Song" - likely a very well-intentioned bedside tribute to someone named Trish as she faces her death, but Baker's warbly self-harmonizing distracts from the beauty of the moment

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Decemberists – What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World

This post caps a rewarding year and a half for new releases from all three acts that comprise your blogger's holy trinity of Millennial-era most-band status: Okkervil River's The Silver Gymnasium (October 2013, NMT), The New Pornographers' Brill Bruisers (August 2014, NMT) and today's release of The Decemberists' What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World.

The Decemberists
New Release: What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World
Release Date: Today (1/20/15)
Record Label: Capitol Records
Location: Portland, Ore.
Sounds Like: Okkvervil River (NMT, NMT); The Family Crest (NMT, NMT); The Head & The Heart (NMT)

Based on the selected tracks that the infamously clever Portlandians disbursed to its nerdy/hipster fandom prior to the release of their seventh full-length release, I was prepared to rephrase what I'd said about their prior record, 2011's The King Is Dead (NMT): that it's a perfectly fine alt-country record, but plenty of acts can spin out quality alt-country material. Few have the zany ability to meld ancient folk, prog rock and nerd pop through an arsenal of unusual instruments and Colin Meloy's ongoing thesaurus-check lyrics.

Fortunately, the band's streaming of the 14-track collection a week prior to its release erased nearly all my anxieties that the group's baroque pop genesis had been replaced with an exclusively alt-country repertoire. And, to be sure, there is plenty of evidence the Americana themes – that they indeed executed with aplomb on The King Is Dead – will continue to be a lasting imprint on the band's new material going forward, in cuts such as the leadoff single "Make You Better," "Lake Song" and "Carolina Low." But just as encouraging is the fistful of tracks that hark back to what fans might consider as the classic Decemberists sound, ranging from the early offerings "Calvary Captain" and "Philomena" to the delightfully odd "Better Not Wake The Baby" and the album's knockout track, "Mistral." So, to all the loyalists, have no fear: The Decemberists have not forsaken you.

Come for: "Make You Better" (straightforward alt rock, perhaps with a bit more oomph than your average Decemberists offering; Jenny Conlee's unadorned piano part gives the tune its warmth)
Stay for: "Cavalry Captain" (welcome back to the exuberant, majestic sound that this group can deliver like few others; instrumentally reminiscent of "We Both Go Down Together")
You'll be surprised by: "Mistral" (one of the band's best individual tracks in some time; most of the Decemberists faithful have watched the video of Colin Meloy joining Mavis Staples for "The Weight" at the Newport Folk Festival. This is that, except an original song; Jenny Conlee's honky-tonk piano is marvelous)
Solid efforts: "The Singer Addresses His Audience" (a companion to "I Was Meant For The Stage" from 2003's Her Majesty, The Decemberists; seems better suited as an album closing number, but perhaps here it's functioning as a prelude; some clever Meloy lines, including, "we're aware that you cut your hair in the style that our drummer wore in that video" and "So when your bridal processional is a televised confessional to the benefits of Axe shampoo"); "Philomena" (hints of 60s doo-wop; ahh, there's the crafty hooks we've come to expect from Meloy; this could be the backstory of the rake character from The Hazards of Love: "I'll I've ever wanted in the world was too see a naked girl"); "Lake Song" (hearty; "And you, all sibylline, reclining in your pew" and "Now we arise to curse those young suburban villains and their ill-begotten children from the lawn"...fantastic writing, as usual); "Til the Water's All Gone" (Chris Funk's twangy western guitar is a new twist for the band); "The Wrong Year" (the narrative first line – "Gray Jane was a riverchild, born down by the river wild" – automatically demands your attention; this number really is a nice bridge between the two eras of Meloy's songwriting); "Carolina Low" (kinda Colin Meloy sings for you; like "Philomena," I imagine this as backstory of the soldier in "Yankee Bayonet" "I'm bound for the hilltop, gonna make it bleed"); "Better Not Wake the Baby" (more integration of the celtic motifs heard on "Rox in the Box" from The King Is Dead;" you could easily be convinced this is some old folk tune; at 1:44, it's the perfect amount of time, a strategy that They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT) have been perfecting for decades: a good idea doesn't need to be any more than that); "Anti-Summersong" (the selection that could have most easily fit on The King Is Dead, country to its core; the echoing bass background vocals in the chorus might be the most humorous thing on the record); "Easy Come, Easy Go" (this is one of those chronicles-of-the sailor-on-shore-leave chanties, but it sounds nothing like any sea chanty you've ever heard. If you know Great Big Sea's (NMT) "Jack Hinks," this is its thematic counterpoint; again, good use of the short 2:11 runtime to deliver a fun idea, but nothing more than that); "12/17/12" (another ostensibly Colin Meloy solo number – that also delivers the album's title – but some unobstructive percussion from John Moen and female backing vocals I guess make it a band song; still, no need to pass it by); "A Beginning Song" (oh, yes, very clever placing a song with this title as the closing number; it's far more uptempo than your standard concluding selection, especially with Nate Query's fuzz bass a-la Ben Folds Five's (NMT) Robert Sledge)   

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Catching Up from a Hectic Fall

The conclusion of a breakneck travel schedule this past fall plus the imminent release of The Decemberists' (NMT, NMT) What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World on January 20th has pressed me to take a look at a few of the artists and releases I overlooked last year. This is by no means a comprehensive effort, but rather a good faith pact with myself to get back in the saddle in keeping up with new music over the course of thus year. Let's see how I do...

The War on Drugs
New Release: Lost In The Dream
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Record Label: Secretly Canadian
Location: Philadelphia, Pa.
Sounds Like: Okkervil River (NMT, NMT); Wilco (NMT); Deer Tick (NMT); Dire Straits

Nearly every review or article on The War on Drugs mentions frontman Adam Granduciel's Dylanesque vocal phrasing. That is, of course, correct, but you can read more about that elsewhere. Instead, the far more interesting comparison is the under-appreciated 80s act, Dire Straits. Granduciel hews closer to his counterpart from that group, Mark Knopfler, and their pairing of precise percussion – much in the tradition of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie – with near-symphonic orchestration and instrumental virtuosity. A good 80 percent of the sextet's third full-length release's ten tracks are expansive, expressive compositions – settling somewhere between the experimental oddity of Pink Floyd and the crisp, orchestral pop of The Moody Blues. Indeed, the shortest cut – "The Haunting Idle," at 3:08 – is merely mid-record instrumental haze.

By all accounts, Granduciel serves as the band's navigation point much like Okkervil River's Will Sheff or a less volatile agitator than Jeff Tweedy is to Wilco. Much like his peers in those outfits, Granduciel is the prime genesis of the material, with the larger unit rounding the compositions into expanded and refined final products, although it should be noted bassist and occasional guitarist David Hartley is essentially a charter member along with Granduciel, while original member Kurt Vile amicably moved on to a successful solo career. But while both Sheff and certainly Sheff ground their sounds on alt-country frames, The War on Drugs finds its footing on much more progressive ground, with strings, synthesizers (from keyboardist/pianist Robbie Bennett) and sax solos (courtesy of Jon Natchez) stretching the sonic palate to celestial expanses. To that end, the album notes credit a dozen session players in addition to the group's standing six-piece lineup.

Much in the same manner as Deer Tick's John McCauley took a period of grief and personal malaise to construct that group's fine work on Negativity, Grandicuel transforms a stretch of post-touring discontent and depression in support of the band's 2011 work, Slave Ambient, into a deconstructed take on isolation and self-doubt. Plug in a pair of big, padded headphones and spend some time to allow Lost In The Dream to converse with you...

Come for: "Red Eyes" (a good sauntering groove that verges on anthemic in the chorus; almost Arcade Fire-esque [NMT, NMT])
Stay for: "Eyes To The Wind" (the ideal blend of Granduciel's expressive vision with some Americana rock sensibility; Jackson Browne's influence peeks around the corners)
You'll be surprised by: "Burning" (much mid-80s Springsteen here, to great effect; the most pop-accessible offering on the collection)    
Solid Efforts: "Under The Pressure" (the long-play leadoff track at 8:52 gives the record's pace-setter plenty of room to stretch out its legs; while the tune's primary riff is not particularly complex, with each cycle it fortifies itself and you're satisfied by the end of the first movement around 5:36; the second movement is just a bit too ethereal, though); "Suffering" (wait, a song with this title isn't a breathy romp of delight? While it's certainly slow and contemplative ["like a snowflake through the fire, I'll be frozen in time, but you'll be here"], there's a deliberateness and sense of measured reflection that makes the encounter of suffering much less an wrenching ordeal then the title suggests); "An Ocean Between The Waves" (the record's centerpiece, and while the passive instrumentation hardly suggests a call-to-arms, lyrically, it's a challenge to individual aspiration ["Just wanna lay in the moonlight / See the light shine in, see you in the outline / It never gets too dark to find / Anybody at anytime"]; Anthony LaMarca's guitar solo around 4:48 grabs hold of the lyrical assertion and becomes its traveling companion); "Disappearing" (the rhythm section of Hartley and drummer Charlie Hall are on the verge of recreating the backing parts that allowed Don Henley to have a solo career in the '80s; the instrumental interlude starting at 1:46 –  with only occasional vamping from Granduciel – is the type of exploration one only finds amongst the jam bands these days); "Lost In The Dream" (although most of the album is mid-to-slow tempo, this is the only true ballad, and it's welcome; the mirrored, jangly electric guitars from Granduciel and Anthony LaMarca are a nice contrast to the song's overarching western motif); "In Reverse" (a closing track clocking in at 7:41 sounds destined to be dirge, right? Granted, it's hardly a barnburner, but the stiff rhythm backbone from Hartley and Hall that kicks in around the 3:15 mark helps the number become the way more bands should wrap things up, as Granduciel calls it, "a grand parade" about the cold wind of self-struggle)
Meh: "The Haunting Idle" (it's fine if you're listening to the record in order, but not much happening otherwise; Granduciel's isolation and depression can easily be found here)

Sturgill Simpson
New Release: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Release Date: May 13, 2014
Record Label: High Top Mountain
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Sounds Like: Father John Misty (NMT); Hiss Golden Messenger (NMT); Onward, Soldiers (NMT)

If you cringe at the very notion of country music, muttering "infinitely regressive" under your breath, Sturgill Simpson is the cure for what ails you. He stands aface of the constant churn of rose-colored patriotism, cheap beer and Southern pride spun out by everyone not named Brad Paisley (who does challenge many of the thematic stereotypes of contemporary country). Back in the 70s, you heard this roots rock style in The Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers and recently redeployed by the likes of Onward, Soldiers and Hiss Golden Messenger. Simpson – who gets brownie points in my book for his time as a yard worker on the Union Pacific Railroad in Salt Lake City – returns the format to its ancestral country home.

Come for: "Turtles All The Way Down" (you won't hear many country sounds approach religion and spirituality quite the same way as this one does; cue it up with Father John Misty's "I'm Writing A Novel" for a metaphysical pairing with as much wit as permitted)
Stay for: "A Little Light" (could easily be confused as some long-forgotten spiritual, the best possible mix of gospel and country; just wish it was a little longer than it's allotted 1:40)
You'll be surprised by: "Voices" (Simpson's rich baritone is used to full effect here)
Solid efforts: "Life of Sin" (hardly the Bible Belt sermon you'd expect from the title; a mature look at love and life) "Living the Dream" (twangy midtempo number, with plenty of honky tonk organ and slide guitar that once marked the best sounds in the country genre; nice electric guitar solo by Laur Joamets around the 2:30 mark; fine lyric: "I don't need to change my strings, cause the dirt don't change the way I sing"); "Long White Line" (a fine road tune, with the steady gait between bassist Kevin Black and drummer Miles Miller the defining attribute, a cover of Buford Abner's original); "The Promise" (a cover of When In Rome's 1988 hit belt-it-out ballad); "Just Let Go" (grabs you from the start with "woke up today, decided to kill my ego," the kind of humble self-assessment so lacking in his genre these days; both Simpson and Joamets display their acoustic guitar work here, plus some excellent vocal harmonies); "Panbowl" (a gentle way to wrap-up the album; you can instantly picture Lake Panbowl in eastern Kentucky of Simpson's upbringing; this is what a country song does best)
Meh: "It Ain't Flowers (a full half-minute of near techno freakout to start the track is something few Music City producers allow, followed by the type of silly, surreal Western ramblings Father John Misty cultivated on Fear Fun)

New Release: Courting Strong
Release Date: May 26, 2014
Record Label: Salinas Records
Location: Durham, U.K.
Sounds Like: Los Campesinos! (NMT, NMT) (no other references are necessary; if you know and like Los Campesinos!, you should know and like Martha)

There really doesn't need to be much exposition of this lo-fi, but high energy British quartet, straddling the line between bratty and snarly (check out this piece from NPR). Unlike The War On Drugs' sonic explorations, all but one track on the 10-track collection checks in at under four minutes. If you enjoy Los Campesinos! brand of infectious pop-punk, then this will be right up your alley. Like their more veteran counterparts, they sound distinctly British (or, more accurately, Welsh, in the LCs' case), with male & female trading vocals. As Courting Strong is the group's full-length debut, it's less finely-polished than the LCs' most recent-work – appropriate for a bunch of kids just having a good time – and also less weighed down by Gareth Campesinos' frequent musings on morbidity of late.

Come for: "Dust, Juice, Bones and Hair" (the most LCs-esque number here, play it right after "You! Me! Dancing!")
Stay for: "1997, Passing in the Hallway" (everything a teenage punk love song should be; delightfully uncomplicated; bassist Naomi Griffin's turn on lead vocals is well-deserved)
You'll be surprised by: "Present Tense" (the slightly more measured pace is a nice change)
Solid efforts: "Cosmic Misery" (perky and pesky, if a bit unsettled at times); "Bubble in My Bloodstream" (surprising, it's at once the heaviest and the punkest number on the record; the mid-number stop-on-a-dime transition to Griffin's chorus is excellent); "Move to Durham and Never Leave" (as odes to hometowns goes, this one's perfect); "Gin and Listerine" (perhaps the young band's most fully-realized musical composition; hey, look it that, it's a guitar solo!; I'd like to know who this Vincenzo is they're singing about); "Sleeping Beauty" (Griffin offers her attempt at deconstructing the meek and helpless princess fairy tale trope); "1967, I Miss You, I'm Lonely" (the catchy guitar hook that leads off the song that is another nearly-blatant LCs ripoff); "So Sad – So Sad" (Yikes! A piano? Ok, there we go; although the 6:47 is positively epic for a band like this, it seems to take nowhere near that long and is nowhere near as dour as the title implies)  
Meh: It's all just great.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The New Pornographers (Brill Bruisers)

Hey! New posts two weeks in a row! Whodda thunk it? To celebrate, we return to one of the acts your blogger considers as part of his holy trinity of millennial indie rock – along with The Decemberists (NMT, NMT) and Okkervil River (NMT, NMT): The New Pornographers.

The New Pornographers
New Release: Brill Bruisers
Release Date: August 26, 2014
Record Label: Matador Records
Location: Vancouver, B.C. / Woodstock, N.Y.
Sounds Like: Polyphonic Spree (NMT); Broken Social Scene; Library Voices (NMT)

In my review of this multi-national, coed octet's fifth release, 2010's Together (NMT), I dubbed the group an "indie-rock supergroup." And while that label is just as ironic now as it was then, it's still an apt descriptor of the band, with most of the group's eight members occupying themselves with solo projects or other bands during the New Pornographers multi-year hiatuses and lead vocals shared among four singers. On their sixth full-length album, Brill Bruisers, chief songwriter A.C. Newman (NMT) remains adept at divvying-up turns out front while actually increasing the group's overall cohesiveness, no small task considering hardly any of the record's baker's dozen tracks were recorded with all the band members in the same place at the same time. Newman has proclaimed the collection – on which bassist John Collins produced along with Newman – as a "celebration record" after "periods of difficulty" which he claims were apparent on previous releases such as Together and 2007's Challengers. While I think few would describe those records as particular downers – just try calling the former's "Crash Years" or the latter's "All The Old Showstoppers" depressing – there's no doubt that from end to end, Brill Bruisers is an uplifting collection of songs.

Newman and Collins steer the group towards the decades of pop compositions manufactured by songwriters ranging from Benny Goodman and Burt Bacharach to Neil Diamond and Carole King who worked out of New York City's Brill Building referenced in the album's title. In particular, the offerings from Dan Bejar are perhaps his most accessible contributions ever in the band. In the past, Bejar's odd voice and quirky phrasing were marked counterpoints to the group's otherwise exuberant indie power-pop. Here, Bejar's jagged edges are smoothed out by a quicker pace and catchier hooks. Additionally, unlike the rest of the group's catalog, there's not a Neko Case (NMT) lead track where she powers past the other vocalists with her range and power, such "Go Places" off Challengers or "The Bleeding Heart Show" from 2005's Twin Cinema. That's no detriment considering the aforementioned cohesiveness and a re-emergent Bejar.

Come for: "Brill Bruisers" (the leadoff, title crack perfectly encapsulates Newman's drive for celebration)
Stay for: "Dancehall Domine" (a quintessential New Pornographers track on par with "Miss Teen Wordpower" off 2003's Electric Version and Together's "Valkyrie at the Roller Disco")
You'll be surprised by: "War on the East Coast" (single-handedly the best thing Bejar has ever done with the band; touches of 60s British invasion in his chorus delivery [listen to how he delivers "I don't care"] matched with an 80s synth-pop vibe)
Solid efforts: "Champions of Red Wine" (Case is in fine form on this bouncy number, with Blaine Thurier's synthesizers out front in the mix unlike few others in the group's repertoire, parrying with chugging guitars from Newman and Todd Fancey; the complex, non-lyrical vocals on the bridge are a highlight); "Fantasy Fools" (minimalist verses contrast with a highly hooky chorus fronted by Newman, with the duo of Case and Newman's niece Kathryn Calder [NMT] demonstrating the vocal depth scarce among bands of this era); "Marching Orders" (the regimental beat fits the song's title perfectly, while Case delivers Newman's songwriting and phrasing probably better than Newman himself can; could easily hear Broken Social Scene writing this one); "Another Drug Deal of the Heart" (I like the contrast of a Case lead vocals track followed by one featuring Calder, who's style is richer and more retrained than her counterpart's, but too bad it's only 1:29 long); "Born With a Sound" (really enjoy the tonal consistency among Bejar's songs on this record, plus pairing Bejar with Calder is a trick the group hasn't tried much before and it works well here); "Wide Eyes" (easily the most restrained effort on the album, with the rare appearance of some acoustic guitars a nice change of pace; Case's contributions on the chorus are the number's standout feature); "You Tell Me Where" (not wild about Newman's intro verse, but then Neko Case shows up and the power kicks in and we're all better for it)
Meh: "Backstairs" (any New Pornographers number longer than 4:00 always seems like an opus; Newman and Collins let Thurier's synthesizers and Fancy's sludgy guitars take center stage here with mixed results; the chorus is catchy enough, but there's a good minute of trippy meandering in the middle that's not my favorite; I feel the same way about this song as I did about Okkervil River's "Stay Young" off Silver Gymnasium earlier this year);  "Hi-Rise" (starts a bit slowly for my taste, but there's some reheated Bowie influence in the body of the song; really should swap places with "You Tell Me Where" as album closer)
Skip to next track: "Spidyr" (this is more like Bejar's previous material: kinda strange, although the harmonica is a nice touch)


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Gaslight Anthem (Get Hurt), Jenny Lewis

The Gaslight Anthem
New Release: Get Hurt
Release Date: 8/19/14
Record Label: Island Records
Sounds Like: The Hold Steady (NMT), The Horrible Crowes (NMT), Augustines (NMT)
Location: New Brunswick, N.J.

After far too much time off, why not re-start with the latest release from the act that both debuted this space and is also its most frequent subject: The Gaslight Anthem (NMT, NMT, NMT). After the died-in-the-wool New Jersey quartet's sophomore release, The 59 Sound, attracted a little buzz for the band, it's subsequently been on a mission to play slower. That trend continues on the group's fifth full-length offering, while also demonstrating an eagerness to play louder. Or quieter. Or sometimes both in the same song. While frontman Brian Fallon insists that the 15-track collection [deluxe edition] is a departure from the band's signature sound – like The Arcade Fire's uneven Reflekor (NMT) – and is prepared for critical displeasure of the album, it actually shouldn't be too great a jump for most of the band's fans. Fallon still delivers no shortage of heart-on-his-sleeve, blue-eyed soul-punk thumpers and meaty, sing-along choruses.

Come for: "Rollin' And Tumblin' (the record's fastest number exemplifies the best the group has to offer; "my ticker tape heart" is a classic Brian Fallon line)
Stay for: "Helter Skeleton" (as quintessential a Gaslight Anthem anthem as anything off "The 59 Sound" or the debut "Sink Or Swim;" without knowing who wrote a line like "there will always be a soft spot in my cardiac arrest," I'd instinctually guess it's a Fallon lyric)
You'll be surprised by: "Underneath The Ground" (sounds like nothing else The Gaslight Anthem has ever recorded, particularly the light – practically gentle – chorus; most prominently keyboards have ever been featured by this band)
Solid efforts: "1,000 Years" (steady and measured, this is the type of outcome the group should be for in its slow-it-down movement; heartland rock-style chorus sing-along); "Get Hurt" (its really quiet and somber at first, but finds a good punch at the first chorus, with the kind of jangly lead guitar parts by Alex Rosamilia that defined the first couple albums); 'Stray Paper" (at times, I'm not sure if this sounds more like Metallica or Tom Petty, which is likely what Fallon was after; key supporting vocals from Sharon Jones); "Red Violins" (this redemptive, spiritual rocker has all the markers of a track that will find a home in the middle of the band's setlists for a long while);"Ain't That A Shame" (one of those that's alternatingly heavy and soft at times); "Break Your Heart" (Brian Fallon sings you a forlorn lullaby); "Dark Places" (a full, sweeping sound following the murky intro; easily could have fit on American Slang or Handwritten); "Mama's Boys," "Sweet Morphine" [deluxe edition] (wait, is that an acoustic guitar on full-band numbers? the western-sounding motifs on these back-to-back numbers are unique for the band, for although Fallon has scattered a handful of solo acoustic tracks across previous albums, the full band format is usually reserved for electric-only instrumentation); "Halloween" (highly-punctuated, a different take on the typical Halloween song as a love long)  
Meh: "Stay Vicious" (what is this, a Staind song? those layers of flat crunch don't convey the band's talent very well, although the shimmer of the pre-chorus and chorus are a welcome contrast);  "Selected Poems" (the verses are a little too hazy and meandering for this outfit, which makes the blast of the chorus a little too jarring)

Jenny Lewis
New Release: The Voyager
Release Date: July 29, 2014
Record Label: Warner Bros. Records
Sounds Like: Rilo Kiley (NMT), Neko Case (NMT), Eisley (NMT)
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

Last year, I reviewed what is likely the last batch of material released by the indie rock outfit Rilo Kiley, their B-sides and rarities archives collection, RKives. One of the primary reasons the four-piece unit from L.A. will probably not deliver any new material is the emergence of frontwoman Jenny Lewis' solo career. Like the work of The New Pornographers' (NMT) Neko Case, Lewis' solo material focuses more on country and Americana roots influences divorced from most of the indie rock power for which their affiliated bands are known. Lewis' crafty songwriting and lyricism occasionally geared to make her audience uncomfortable translate well from her Rilo Kiley work, while the presence of A-list producers Ryan Adams and Beck speak to how well her talent is regarded in the indie-rock industry. My main gripe with the overall 10-track effort is the preponderance of mid-tempo numbers, as the bulk of her Rilo Kikey effectively demonstrated the quality and power of her voice on uptempo tracks. 

Come for: "Just One Of The Guys" (Lewis' tonal counterpoint to Case's own "Man" leans heavily on alt-county veneer; check out its star-studded video)
Stay for: "Aloha & The Three Johns" (easily the most accessible track on the record; witty but not too clever in the tale of three guys named John on a Hawaiian vacation; the rhyming of "cava" and "farther" in the outro isn't my favorite of Lewis' writing ever, though)
You'll be surprised by: "The New You" (the record's lyrical centerpiece, which manages to reference both 9/11 and Metallica without coming across as heavy-handed)
Solid efforts: "Head Underwater" (good bounciness, if not a tad too poppy and the lyrics are a bit self-help-y at times); "She's Not Me" (if Lewis had been drafted into The Eagles for The Long Run album, she would have contributed this song; the strings point to late-70's disco-pop); "Slippery Slopes" (the slide guitar that accompanies Lewis' vocal melody during the verses is a nice touch, otherwise a good deal of alt-rock crunch; references to California's drug culture); "Late Bloomer" (this is one of those Lewis numbers – like many from the Rilo Kiley era – that could or could not be semi-autobiographical; the downbeat anti-chorus is notable in contrast to the major-chord, narrative verses); "Love U Fovever" (some 80s-style girl pop-rock; not sure how tongue-in-cheek this is intended to be); "The Voyager" (the title track is better than most album closing efforts, with Lewis' self-harmonizing and simple acoustic strumming paired with complex, but unobtrusive background instrumentation)
Meh: "You Can't Outrun 'Em" (it's not all that bad, but not a ton of depth to this outlaw quasi-ballad and the desert surrealist instrumental bridge doesn't appeal all that much to me)

P.S. Speaking of The New Pornographers and Neko Case, stay tuned next week for a review of the indie supergroup's latest release, Brill Bruisers.